Who grows the best crops, small to medium sized farmers or big farmers? As producers, our work is on display all growing season. Everybody can view and compare.
Addressing the above question probably requires a definition. What’s a small to medium sized farm and what’s a big farm? Here are some back-of-the-envelope thoughts.
Small to medium – up to 2,000 seeded acres. Not big enough to employ the newest or largest equipment. May have an off-farm job or sideline business. May be in the later stages of their farming career or may be a young producer.
Average commercial – 2,000 to 5,000 acres. Many operations fall into this category. The upper end of the acreage is typically defined by what a single piece of seeding equipment and a single combine can comfortably accomplish.
Large farms – 5,000 to 10,000 acres. Some people may say this size should no longer be considered large, but at this acreage two late-model seeders and two or more combines are usually required.
Extra-large farms – more than 10,000 acres. Increasingly, there are farms that encompass 20, 40 and 80,000 acres and the trend to larger shows no signs of slowing.
Whether you agree or not with my size definitions, you’ll probably agree that farms of different sizes face different challenges in growing a good crop.
For the small-to-medium sized operations, access to new technology can limit production potential. How much fertilizer are they able to apply at seeding? How is their depth control?
Beyond that, they may have to balance farming with a job or a cow-calf operation. If they’re a farmer nearing retirement, they may have physical limitations on getting field operations completed in a timely manner. They may also be unwilling to invest as much as their neighbours in crop inputs.
However, you also see small-to-medium operations that do a great job. They know their land base like the back of their hand and even though their equipment is older it never misses a beat. Some smaller operations try to grow higher value crops or have switched to organic production.
At the other end of the scale, large-and-extra-large farmers tend to have late-model equipment and the latest technology. This can be a blessing and a curse. New technology often comes with a learning curve and there can be screw-ups along the way.
Large farms are typically in expansion mode meaning they’re farming some land for the first time and that can lead to challenges. As well, large operations can end up stretched too thinly. The last producers still seeding are often big acreage boys who may have bitten off more than they can chew.
Labour issues hit large farmers hardest. If the workforce is inexperienced and/or not fully competent, it can show up in the cropping results.
However, large farms didn’t get large by being unsuccessful. They’re more likely to use higher levels of inputs and more likely to employ professional agronomic advice.
Some of the very large operations are extremely well organized and grow tremendous crops. On the other hand, some of the corporate farming experiments have been disasters.
Between big and small, what I’ve described as “average commercial,” there’s the full range of the challenges and opportunities ascribed to the other categories.
Of course, luck and fortuitous timing also play a role every year no matter what size you are.